Race in Linguistics (Who gets to study us? Part 1)

After any academic talk, such as a presentation given on one’s current research, there is time left for the audience to ask questions and offer feedback to the presenter. In our department’s regular colloquium series, for which big-name linguists come to speak, we have a new tradition of having a student ask the first audience question. It was recently implemented because there were some overeager faculty members who would always dominate the Q&A period, and some students felt like they weren’t getting a fair chance to express their views.

While I appreciate that a student always has the privilege of speaking first now, I have never used this privilege, because I rarely speak up at colloquia. Until recently, in fact, over three years of regularly attending these talks, I had never asked a single question of our guest speakers. Mostly it was because I couldn’t think of a “good” question to ask, one that would make the speaker actually think, or say, “Hey, that’s a good question!” and in so doing help me feel like I was valuable to this academic community. Sometimes, another student would ask something similar to what I was thinking.

But at a recent colloquium talk, I thought of something that was 1) directly relevant to the speaker’s ideas, 2) actually a pressing matter on my own mind, and 3) not likely also to be asked by many other students. So I asked my first colloquium question! It was addressed to Anne Charity Hudley, a linguist at UC Santa Barbara, whose talk was about race and linguistics.

I mean, that subject matter alone is fascinating. But take a look at the talk abstract:

Race has been integral to how languages have been defined over time and to how linguistics has developed as a discipline. Furthermore, both the humanistic and scientific studies of language have served to racialize individuals and communities. In order to work towards greater racial justice within linguistics, the challenge remains for linguists to develop a cohesive theory of race that is influenced by researchers of different methodological approaches and racial backgrounds.

Through examples from her work on language and culture in U.S. schools, Charity Hudley presents ways that raciolinguistic ideologies are reproduced and contested in linguistic research on African-Americans. She provides insights on ways that linguistic research can empower African-Americans’ own self-concepts of their language. Her model suggests methodologies for addressing persistent issues of internalized racism in students and educators. […]

Wow, right? This kind of linguistics you don’t come across every day. In theoretical linguistics, most of the talks go something like this: “I have a hypothesis about a certain phenomenon that happens in one or several languages. Here’s some data that supports or rejects that hypothesis. Here’s my conclusion, and here’s what we should study next.”

Anne did not only show us charts and graphs and hypotheses and results. It wasn’t a talk that focused on theoretical issues in linguistics. It wasn’t even a talk that focused on issues in applied linguistics (which is where language science intersects with education, speech pathology, translation, etc.). Her talk was actually about linguistics itself — the field of study as an object of study — and how it has been used as a tool to serve the goals of certain socially constructed ideologies (i.e., race). To put it plainly, it was a meta analysis of the entire world I work in, and it blew my mind.

It was like when I started to study Christianity from a theoretical and historical perspective and discovered that many truths I had taken for granted or believed to be incontestably true were actually decided upon by ancient councils of scholars or even recent developments in Protestantism that didn’t necessarily have a basis in the religion’s holy scriptures.

So it’s not like I was literally unaware that linguistic ideas have been used to motivate racially prejudiced policies (for a local example, see the Oakland Ebonics Resolution). My epiphanic moment was more along the lines of, “Wow, how come more people don’t do this kind of research?” And I was also happy to see that Anne Charity Hudley doesn’t just write books on race and linguistics, but also holds linguistic workshops for racial minorities and advocates for educational reform both in standard public education and within the rarefied halls of the ivory tower. The message: we need more racial diversity and better racial education in Linguistics.

So, back to the question that I asked. It went something like this: “As a Black woman who studies African American speech, do you ever feel pigeonholed by your field of research, in the sense that, as a linguist who is also an ethnic minority, you feel either a sense of obligation to study your own ethnicity or a slight dismissiveness from other academics because you’ve specialized in this particular area? What I’m getting at is the subtle but pervasive idea that seems to exist in academia, that White scholars, especially White men, are free to study anyone and anything they like, and it’s just chalked up to their personal interests, but if I, as an Asian American, study Asian American communities, or if there’s a woman who studies female speech patterns, then the response is usually, ‘Oh, but of course.’ Know what I mean?”

It was a long-winded question.

But Anne knew what I meant. I didn’t even have to explain that my own research projects are on Asian American speech patterns and LGBTQ individuals forging their identities, and that I sometimes feel like when I explain that I study these things because I’m interested in them, I also need to provide some sort of postscript: “Oh yeah, and also I’m Asian and queer so it ‘makes sense’ for me to study this.” I’m not allowed to have mere interest in my subject of interest, because it’s socially marked, and I am, too.

But the assumptions run in the other direction, as well. Right now, my focus has been on Korean Americans, and so most people who hear about this before getting to know me well jump to the conclusion that I must be Korean American myself. Or when I talk to my dad about my research and he asks me, “So, when are you going to also study Taiwanese Americans?” You know, the community that I actually have an ethnic connection to?

So it’s either: obviously, I study X because I am X; or, why don’t you study Y, Andrew, since you’re Y? This is why I feel pigeonholed from time to time. I imagine that it must be the same for a lot of social scientists who study a minoritized population to which they have some personal connection. (Furthermore, it can be especially aggravating if the field is already dominated by old White men who claim to have the “privilege” of a “neutral positionality” as scholars with no personal ties.)

One thing I could do is try to broaden my research interests and make them more abstract. So instead of, for example, studying the speech patterns of transgender women and seeing how an individual can change over time, I could take that data and funnel it into a more theoretical exploration of phonetic drift, or exemplar models of speech, or something else that has nothing to do with transgender identity or any social issues at all. This is the direction my dissertation committee is likely to advise me to take, so that my work can have the broadest possible audience. (But that makes me wonder: who is my intended audience, and why?)

I had the good fortune of choosing my own research projects. I’m not just following in my adviser’s footsteps. I’m doing what I want to do. So why is it that sometimes I feel inadequate for doing so? Am I just insecure about my work because it isn’t as grounded in theory as others’? Am I insecure because sociolinguistics already gets a bad rap for being among the handwaviest of linguistic subfields? Or because literally all of my undergraduate linguistics professors, and all but two of my teachers and mentors at Cal, were and are White people who do not just study White people’s language, and I feel the need to emulate that? Am I just overthinking this? Maybe it’s not such a big deal if somebody jumps to the conclusion that I study Koreans because I’m Korean. It probably comes as no surprise that I’ve spent a lot of my intended research time brooding over the “meta” stuff.


Interpretation is up to you. Salt Lake City, Utah.

While I was thinking all of this, though, Anne Charity Hudley actually did answer my question, and her response was perfect. She said that up until graduate school, she had never felt insecure or pigeonholed as a minority, because she had the great fortune of attending a high school and college where the scholars who were her mentors and role models all looked like her, and also studied anything and everything they desired. It was at their encouragement that she began studying the linguistic patterns of the Black community, and because of that, she was inured against the insecurities that could have arisen once she went to graduate school and realized that she had become a token minority.

She said: “Don’t let anyone make you feel inferior for studying whatever you study.” More importantly, we have to work within the system and change what the field looks like, so that in the near future, a woman who specializes in women is normalized and their work is not dismissed as “supplemental” to core theoretical issues. A queer person can work on LGBTQ issues without anyone thinking they just settled for it or that they got a free pass into the ivory tower because of their identity.

At the same time, there’s a lot to be said about the “appropriateness” of outsiders studying a marked community. As I mentioned before, thousands of White men study Asian cultures in all of the social sciences and humanities. I don’t think we can look at this and say it is objectively good or bad, but I think we can all agree that Western institutions should also raise up Asian scholars to study Asia, and that to do so, some qualified non-Asian candidates must be passed over for jobs. And I’m thinking about this for myself, too, because I hold an intersection of identities. I may be queer, but I’m not a woman, so what’s the protocol for when I embark on a research project that focuses on queer women? I’ve got a follow-up post in the pipeline that will address this problem.

For now, though, I want to end with some gratitude, as always, for all the opportunities I’ve been given to fulfill my personal dreams of studying such a fascinating subject in such an awesome department. Academia is a messy world, but I am making a home here. I owe this to my teachers and mentors both past and present. And obviously, I don’t hold anything against them collectively for all being White, but what I realize now more than ever is that when I look to the future, I want it to look a little different. I want my role in academia to be someone who does great research and who can connect it to his personal experiences and identity and feel neither any uneasiness for centering it nor the obligation to do so at all. And as I do this, I’ll want to create that encouraging environment for other minorities in academia who follow me, so that they’ll be able to do their best work and worry less about the meta stuff.


Word of the Day: a dogsbody is a person who is given boring, menial tasks to do. This is British slang that came from the Navy, as it was originally used to refer to a type of pease pudding, but then came to be associated with the low-level officers who had to make it.

About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
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4 Responses to Race in Linguistics (Who gets to study us? Part 1)

  1. I saw Anne Charity Hudley speak at the Our Linguistics Community panel at the LSA, and she was fantastic. Also, what you said about people who have a marked social identity being expected to study things related to that same social identity reminded me of the founder of our Georgian chorus, who is Indian-American but sings and teaches Georgian music and specializes in Slavic linguistics. I remember her specifically evoking a sense of kinship with someone else who was in the choir for a bit, a Chinese graduate student in the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures department.


    • Andrew C. says:

      How interesting! And yes, I am very glad that the LSA held that panel, and a few others, that commented on the “meta” aspects of linguistics as a discipline. I hope that they continue to do so in the future, so that our field is as self-aware as possible.


  2. Well-written, as always!

    I found it interesting that you discussed entitlement in a variety of ways — am I allowed to conduct research on the linguistics of women? Of Korean/Korean-Americans? — but, in contrast, at most only impliedly touched on a sense of obligation and/or guilt.

    Full disclosure: my motivation in bringing this up is almost entirely selfish. That is, I find that I increasingly bear a heavy sense of guilt for speaking Chinese and Spanish with near-fluency, but knowing almost no Korean, despite being of Korean descent. “Are we allowed to study these cultures to which we do not belong” is one line of inquiry; “Do we not have an *obligation* to study the cultures to which we do belong (or at least, the cultures from which we spring)” is another one entirely. I don’t in any way propound it as a fruitful one, but since you have done such a lovely job unwrapping the former, I thought perhaps you might have interesting thoughts on the latter?


    • Andrew C. says:

      Thank you! I guess that the short answer is: “no, we do not have an obligation to study our own cultures”, which is what I would tell my dad when he asks me why I don’t study Taiwanese. But there is a longer answer to this, too, one that I’d love to chat about in person! Or maybe I’ll get around to writing a Part 3…


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